Translation as a form of reading and the otherness we embrace within ourselves through translated works are explored in Elodie Rose Barnes’ second piece, as part of her Life in Languages series.
“Identity is, to me, an exploration of all the possibilities of being….in recognising that the other is in ourselves.” (Ananda Devi as quoted on Les Fugitives’ website).
Otherness. Identity. Two very charged words in one beautiful quote; words that carry so much more than the weight of their letters. I knew I wanted to write something more about language and identity; something about how we are human, and therefore in need of kinship. Something about how we all look for that kinship outside of ourselves, in our families and friends, in our relationships, in our culture. How language binds all of those things together, and how language can also separate them. How our search for ourselves can turn into “us” and “the other”, and how language can help us recover – or discover – a sense of oneness instead. Three drafts in, and I’m still drifting in circles. As my grandmother said, you have to wade through a lot of shit to get to what you want. She was actually talking about men, not writing, but I like to think the principle’s the same.
(This, for the moment, is what I’m wading through: an engulfing feeling of not belonging. A feeling of otherness. It’s the same feeling that followed me throughout childhood, a nameless shadow that evaporated like smoke every time I turned around and left lingering scents of guilt and shame in its wake. There was no reflection of me anywhere, no matter how hard I tried to conjure one up; belonging was a circus trick that I didn’t know how to perform. It revisits sometimes. I swim in it, and the memories of it, for days until something or someone drags me out. The emergence is sopping wet, gasping, exhausted.)
This is the basis of what I have scribbled down at the back of a notebook: we are conditioned to look for our reflection in the mirrors that are closest to us. We are never told that those mirrors often don’t show us who we are, or that sometimes they cannot give us the solidarity, the empathy, we crave. We all want to feel ourselves at one with another, to find our identity shared; and yet, too often we are looking in the wrong place. We begin to feel ourselves apart. We begin to see others as different.
We don’t look far enough, away from ourselves.
(I stopped reading in my late teens. Books had always seemed like home, until I became more fully aware of myself and realised that I wasn’t in any of them. None of the ones I tried told a story remotely like mine. I never looked beyond my own mirror, and so eventually I stopped looking altogether.)
In taking a break, I return to a project of backing up and captioning old photos. Thousands of them. I’ve reached Israel, 2011, where a concrete wall formed an inescapable boundary between “us” and “the other”. There, it seemed as if the mirrors had stopped reflecting, and a new dimension was added to my own feelings of otherness. In a land torn into shreds by all types of conflict – religious, political, cultural, social, and economic – there was already an “us” and a “them”. I was necessarily an outsider, beyond even that dichotomy and very aware of it. Is this, I remember wondering, what they mean by “culture shock”? Like a faint tattoo, fragments of that trip are inked on my mind; echoes of experience that a photograph could never capture. Guns. Checkpoints. The heat of the desert and the kindness of strangers, and the way that different languages hammered into my consciousness. In East Jerusalem, my base for almost two weeks, the tension was palpable as Arabic rubbed up against Hebrew, one culture against another. The alphabet changed several times a day but I was limited to my English, reliant on others to understand me and helpless if they didn’t. The limitations could have been endless – in restaurants and cafes, on public transport, in shops, at checkpoints where I didn’t know which line to stand in – but in that fluidity, I saw flashes of what Ananda Devi describes as “the possibilities of being”.
(I remember the dizziness and pain in the tattoo parlour, real this time and not imagined, as the artist inked the Hebrew word מִצְפָּה (‘mizpah’) across the small of my back. The direct translation is “watchtower”, but I’ve never found a single English word that captures the deeper meaning, which is “the emotional bond between two people who are separated by long distance or death”. It was a single word that made a part of me – the part that had never really known my father but still missed him – feel understood in a way that almost twenty words of bumbling English couldn’t.)
Reading work in translation comes very close, for me, to capturing that same strange confluence of limitation and limitlessness. Limitlessness, because new worlds open up that were previously closed, and the possibilities for those experiences of solidarity and empathy seem endless. Limiting, perhaps, because it also requires something of me: that I consciously place my trust in the text. With no knowledge (or very little) of the original language, I have to believe that the translator has rendered the original as faithfully as possible. Reading becomes an exercise in awareness. I wonder what, if anything, has been lost, and what has been gained. How am I interpreting a narrative that has already been translated once by the author, from thoughts to page, and several times by the translator, from first draft to final English text? Which parts of my experience am I seeing reflected in the author, and which in the translator? I’ve never minded which, it just matters that they’re there. And in those gaps – the bridges between the original, and the translation, and my own internal translation of the translation – I always see opportunity. All these voices not only give me a glimpse into other places, other cultures, other ways of being; they also give me glimpses of myself. There, in those gaps, is the invitation of translation: the invitation to explore identity, and sameness and otherness, and everything in between, and to recognise that “the other is in ourselves”.
This piece was completed for Life in Languages, a new series conceived and guest edited by Elodie Rose Barnes
Language is our primary means of communication. By speaking and writing, listening and reading, by using our tongues and our bodies, we are able to communicate our desires, fears, opinions and hopes. We use language to express our views of the world around us. Language has the power to transcend barriers and cross borders; but it also has the power to reinforce those demarcations. Language offers a form of resistance against oppression, yet it can also be used to oppress. Language has the power to harm or to heal.
In these times of shifting boundaries and physical separation, when meaningful connection has become even more important yet seemingly difficult to attain, language has become vital. The words we choose to read, write, and speak can bring us closer as individuals and as a collective. During lockdown, unable to travel, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to reading works in translation from all over the world – not only for the much longed-for glimpses into different cultures and ways of being that I cannot experience in person (for the time being, at least), but because they offer new words, new viewpoints, new ways of expression. Grief, loss, uncertainty, anger, hope, joy, love: these are universal emotions. Finding my own feelings mirrored in the writing of womxn from all across the world, from different times and different situations, across generations, is a massive comfort. It’s also led me to examine my own relationship to language and languages: what I read, how I write, the roots of my communication, and how that’s changing today.
In this series for Lucy Writers, I’ll share some of my personal reflections on how language has shaped my life and writing, and review some of my favourite works in translation written and/or translated by womxn. Writing on works written and translated by the likes of Natasha Lehrer, Saskia Vogel, Leila Slimani, Sophie Lewis, Deborah Dawkin, Khairani Barokka and many more will feature in Life in Languages.
Elodie Rose Barnes
The series will be open to contributions from 25 July 2020. See our Submissions & Contact page for full details.
Feature image: detail from Francesca Woodman’s Self-Deceit #1 (Roma), Vintage gelatine print, 1977-78, Gallery of Modern Art, National Galleries of Scotland.